Simple and sleek or rugged and slubby, naturally neutral or saturated with colour: linen’s versatility makes it an ever-popular material and a firm favourite with designers. Elfreda Pownall considers what makes linen so special and why textile experts like Bernie de Le Cuona and Mark Butcher are so passionate about the material.
by Elfreda Pownall
Linen is woven from the fibres in the stalk of the flax plant – and though its name derives from linum, the latin for flax, it has been known as a textile from pre-historic times – fragments of woven wild flax dating from 30,000 years ago, were found by archaeologists in the Dzvdzuana cave in Georgia. Flax is grown in cool countries round the world, in Russia, Lithuania, Canada, China and in Flanders. The fibres are loosened from the plant’s stalk by natural retting, which dissolves the pectin that binds the fibres together, by bacterial action in water, or when the harvested stalks are left in the fields to be retted by the action of rain and dew. The alternative chemical methods act faster, but they are more damaging to the environment, and to the fibres themselves. Linen is however more ecologically sound than cotton, requiring much less water in the processing.
There are many reasons why linen is so popular for interior decoration right now. It is used in natural shades and simple weaves for minimalist interiors, or with a chunky, rough finish in rustic schemes. And when used as a base cloth for printed patterns, it is a textile that takes colour beautifully for more traditional, colour-coordinated interiors. With the rise of industrial chic came an increase in the use of linen in a variety of forms – used, un-ironed, rumpled, and ‘honest’ – for curtains and upholstery. Many designers love linen’s texture and surface quality and carefully choose their suppliers to ensure they get the different cloths they need for their designs. But for two world-renowned British designers linen is a mission, a passion, a Holy Grail: Bernie de Le Cuona, of the eponymous de Le Cuona, and Mark Butcher of Mark Alexander. Though soft, lustrous, and flexible, linen fibre has never been an easy yarn to weave, the work involved in producing these most luxurious linens for today’s interiors market entails a process of almost unimaginable complication.
The designers’ first choice is that of the yarn itself. Long staple yarn – long lengths of flax that require fewer knots or ‘slubs’ – is the most luxurious and expensive. But short staple, with its more frequent slubs, is attractive to some weavers, too, because of the resulting random, bumpy texture of the finished weave.
The next choice is that of finding a mill to spin the yarn to the maker’s specifications. These might include extra loops on the thread to achieve a boucle finish, or a thread deliberately varying in diameter to bring a more artisanal look to the woven fabric.
After that come the many choices of dyeing – such as flame-dying, which means a colours’s intensity varies along the yarn’s length by spraying the dye at random.
Then it is on to the weavers – yet another process that reveals the creativity of both Bernie de Le Cuona and Mark Butcher. They fulfil their ideas for new finishes and weaves by seeking out small family-run mills who are prepared to work closely with the designers to produce innovative yarns
The woven fabric might then be taken to another facility for stonewashing, which softens the cloth. It might travel on to another station for conditioning, and perhaps on to yet another for embroidery. The resulting linens can be silken soft, or crunchy and tough, or airy and translucent.
For both designers, it is linen’s relaxed luxury that attracts them. Mark Alexander, who is a Masters of Linen Ambassador, has created wonderful weaves of every possible weight for upholstery and curtains, characterised by a delicious artisanal hand-loomed look. And Bernie de Le Cuona delights in her Buffalo linen, an upholstery weight “as tough as buffalo hide”. ““You can’t harm the fabric.” she says. “If your dog jumps onto the sofa with muddy paws, you can just brush it with a stiff brush.” Her other favourite is Snowflake, an airy sheer linen which is completely transparent.
Today, in an increasingly mechanised world, linen responds to our need for a fabric that looks and feels natural and home-made. And it is the natural look of the finished fabric that appeals to other designers, too – like Michal Silver, design director of Christopher Farr Cloth, which produces printed designs by a range of collaborators such as artist Raoul Dufy.
Designer Ilse Crawford has also worked with Christopher Farr and echoes many of her colleagues’ thoughts when she says: “We start with a good base cloth, one that has character and that enhances the craftsman-ship of our designs. With linen we get more nuances of colour from our hand-printing.”
Christine van der Hurd is also known for her work with linen. She finds the Baltic linen she uses brings texture and soul to her geometric prints and embroidery. “Linen has its own energy,” she says. “It looks both relaxed and sophisticated.”
Tom Helme of Fermoie, which opened a showroom on Pimlico Road in London in December 2016, echoes Crawford’s sentiment. The company’s beautiful Fermoie Plain fabric may look like an ancient, plain-dyed fabric whose top layer of colour has been eroded over time, but it is actually a print. “The random texture of the base cloth means you build in character to your designs,” says Helme. “It’s the beauty of mystery.”